Unplugged in the literacy classroom?

This is a follow up post to the #ELTchat discussion on dealing with learners with low levels of literacy. The original summary can be found here on my blog, and the transcript is on the ELTchat wiki here. The idea is that the original summary only really covered half the chat in a good amount of detail, and there are a few tweets from the second half I think could be expanded upon.

Note – there is now a fabulous ‘Make the most of #ELTchat’ video available, produced by @NavitarDiaries, which you can see in the sidebar to the left of this post. No excuses not to join in now!

This is the first tweet I’d like to look at:

@esolcourses: I find unplugged/personalised approach helps with very low-level learners – blogged about this a while back http://bit.ly/cBEvmX #ELTChat

Now this is an area that I am quite interested in investigating. My opinion, writ elsewhere on this blog, is that a pre-planned course(book) cannot really provide for my students as (a) they may have vastly different needs, and (b) the content may be wholely irrelevant to them.

When I wrote about noticing a dogme moment before over at Karenne’s Kalinago English blog, one of the points that came up in my analysis of my lesson was the element of personalisation.

If the language you are looking at is coming from the students, it is highly likely to be…

  1. the language they need
  2. the language they want

Why is this approach good if you are dealing with learners with low levels of literacy? I can think of two obvious reasons…

  1. You can start looking at the language at a conversational level (note – this does not just mean talk, but also shorter examples of written forms of communication) before moving on to more complex written forms. Often (but not always, and probably more particularly in English-speaking environments) such learners are a lot more able and confident orally than they are when reading and writing (probably as much in L1 as in English). This was suggested by Luke Meddings in a comment earlier on this blog.
  2. You are more likely to be meeting the learners at their point of need. What are they using the language for and why? If you are getting there, you are on to a good way of ensuring that learners are motivated, important for any learner but especially so for those with poor literacy skills.

BUT, this is all coming from my experience as a teacher of ESOL in an English-speaking environment. I’d love to hear from anyone dealing with such learners in a non-English speaking context. Anyone out there?

Useful links


  1. Hi Mike, I think a coursebook can predict functions and grammar to some extent, e.g. talking about yourself and, in ESOL contexts, phoning for an appointment etc., but the lexis they need may be personal and unpredictable. What language are you thinking of when you say a coursebook/worksheet can’t predict it? As Jeremy says, a good coursebook allows room for personalisation. To what extent should a book be empty, with space to fill up in the lesson? Jason makes/made materials like this, didn’t he?

    • Hi David,

      I agree with you that a pre-planned course and coursebook content can predict some of the functions and grammar that learners will need. Where I find this difficult is situations where you have learners with (often greatly) differing needs. This is where I feel following a pre-prepared route will be missing out on hitting the target language these learners need. I’m not eschewing coursebook or worksheet content totally, but I think taking the unplugged approach to materials (and wherever possible getting these from the learner, whether in the form of emergent language, or them bringing in texts/material) is more likely to help us all get where we need to be.

      I like the idea of the empty book, and Jeremy is totally right about good coursebooks allowing for personalisation. The other problem (not mentioned above) about using coursebooks, in particular in my context (state-funded education), is that there are simply not the funds to purchase books for every learner, nor can they do so themselves. We do have a bank of resources, coursebooks among them, but I think that working from/adapting these is another cost in terms of preparation time. Why do I need to type out my own version of a coursebook activity, which will then be printed off, when I can possibly/probably get more useful content direct from the learner.

      Thanks for the comment and prompting me to think about that.

      Mike =)



  1. Unplugged in the literacy classroom? — ww... - […] This is a follow up post to the #ELTchat discussion on dealing with learners with low levels of literacy...  …

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